Are Freshmen Retention Rates a Good Indicator of a College’s Quality?

The answer may not be as clear-cut as you’re hoping, because: yes and no. But let’s break it down.

A college student standing in front of multiple bookshelves reading a book.

First off: what is a freshmen retention rate?

It is the percentage of students who return for their second (or sophomore) year at school. For example, Vanderbilt University has a first-year retention rate of 97%. That means that only 3% of its freshmen class did not return. That’s a pretty good retention rate.

What if the rates are low?

But what if a school’s freshmen retention rates are low? Does it mean it’s a bad school? To answer that question, let’s first look at all the reasons a student may not return for their sophomore year of school. Perhaps they just can’t afford tuition. Maybe they had a personal crisis come up. They might have switched majors and sought a school that had a different program. With a myriad of reasons, not all of them school-related, it’s hard to quantify how many students failed to return because of the school itself.

What if the rates are high?

So a high retention rate might really indicate the high quality of the school, but determining if a low retention rate equates to low quality is a bit trickier. Of course, if the school’s rate is really low—say, for instance, in the mid-sixty range—then that might be a red flag you should pay attention to. If nearly half of the incoming freshmen class is not returning for a second year, maybe you should do some additional research and keep some backup schools on your list.

Of course, just because a school has a high retention rate doesn’t necessarily mean that you will enjoy that school. Every student needs and expects something different from a college, so what works for many may not happen to work for you. This isn’t necessarily a fault of the school, nor a reflection of its quality, but just how well you matched with that college.

So with all that in mind, let’s circle back to the original question: are freshmen retention rates a good indicator of the quality of a school? Sort of, BUT only as a general indicator. With so many reasons as to why a student might leave, it’s hard to say whether or not the school was “to blame” when only looking at raw statistics.

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